Ethics & Public Policy Center

What Does Conservatism Mean After The Iraq War?

Published in The American Conservative on May 23, 2020


As a Christian and an American citizen of Iraqi heritage, I want to address a point raised in John Burtka’s recent article defending First Things. Namely, the impact of the War in Iraq on Christians in the country and conservatism in America.

“We do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy,” wrote Christopher Lasch. For me, men like John Henry Newman, Christopher Dawson, Christopher Lasch, and others like them, are models of a life open to intellectual change, to growth, soul-searching. Thinkers willing to learn and change. I do not mean vacillating between opinions, but being willing to self-correct.

I had not been in America a full year when Iranian college students under the sway of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized the American embassy and took Americans hostage. The first election of Ronald Reagan was celebrated in our home even though we couldn’t vote. When Reagan’s second election came around, my father was allowed to vote. By this time we had been in America long enough for him to recognize that although the Democrats were good at providing financial assistance, the Republicans were better at providing job opportunities. It’s not that he believed a person doesn’t need help or shouldn’t receive help if they truly need it, but he saw that even people who could work, didn’t work, relying on government assistance. He thought that a job in general, is better for a person—and he wanted a job—he still refuses to truly “retire.” And so our household became Republican.

I was a confused little girl after we came to America. Missing home, missing the sense of a whole self, torn between the civilization I left behind and the civilization I entered into—who I was and what I was becoming. Always plagued by the desire to understand what it means to be, I concluded that the only way to survive this internal disunity was to reject my Iraqi heritage.

When America, under George H.W. Bush, lead coalition forces against Iraq, I wept. But I learned to compartmentalize, I set my emotions aside and went on with an unrelenting drive to assimilate and integrate. When friends and relatives sent updates, when I heard how devastating the post-war embargo was on the Iraqi people, I hardened my heart, continuing apace my drive to conform to the world around me. I was an American now, I told myself, I can’t continue to sympathize with these people.

President Clinton’s years in office only cemented my view that the Republicans were the good and moral people. The years I had spent assimilating to the American Evangelical Republican scene culminated in 2000. That year I worked on the ground in California to help George W. Bush get elected. I even shook his hand at a rally. As a listener of Hugh Hewitt and a reader of National Review and The Weekly Standard, I had high hopes. Our man was in office. The vestiges of my heritage made me pro-life and pro-family, and the Republican party claimed these principles. In a contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush, it was a no-brainer.

But when America invaded Iraq, again, the scales dropped. The leader I helped elect, the president I hoped would do great things for us the American people, dissolved into an average politician capitulating to the Military Industrial Complex.

Quietly and gradually I retreated from the Republican Party and the conservatism on offer. Many American conservatives—natural and naturalized—did the same. Officially I became an independent voter. Yet I never stopped being conservative. Intellectually I turned in on myself. Around that time, I also went through serious life changes. The years passed, but the internal disquiet remained. After years of searching for a sound understanding of what it means to be, a sound understanding of the world around me, I converted to Catholicism. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, and it opened up for me treasures of knowledge. By the light of reason and faith I was intent to rethink everything. I knew I needed to go back to first principles and rebuild from there. It took years, and I am still at it.

It takes discipline and humility before God to not scorn, or simply belittle, what we leave behind. In the political realm that meant rejecting the ideas that resulted in the complete destruction of Iraq. The years of disquiet have taught me to be cautious—some may say too reserved. “Politics isn’t about being nice,” wrote John Burtka—maybe not, but it certainly can be respectful and irenic. Am I wrong to think so? After all, can we not disagree without shaming and ridiculing. Isn’t that what those on the Right criticize about those on the Left?

Some of those I now disagree with are my friends and acquaintances, I love them even when I think they were, and are, wrong. Some have not fully grasped how influential they were, they have not come to terms with the fact that their ideas killed people, as John Burtka wrote, “their policies have killed, yes, literally killed.” They are wonderful people, but their ideas destroyed many of the people I know and love. People who would never have set foot on American soil had their world not turned upside down.

As a woman seeking holiness, I strive hard to suppress the rage—nay, the righteous anger—I feel at this piece from Fred Barnes. It is a denigration of an entire people. Some individuals are contemptible, but cannot the same be said of us? Do we not also have tyrants and knaves in our midst? Are we not also filled with corruption?

Grateful? Imagine a nation invading us, plundering us, destroying our corrupt leaders (and we have many), uprooting us, creating absolute chaos, instigating internal strife, and telling us we should be grateful for the “greatest act of benevolence one country has ever done for another.” And they would remind us that we should be grateful they destroyed our tyrant.

Are we surprised by the cost of human lives, of flesh and blood, men, women, and children? Could this devastation not have been foreseen? Only those that did not count the cost or turned a blind eye can be surprised at the decimation of Iraq’s Christians. Pope John Paul II certainly warned against it.

And after all that, Sohrab Ahmari writes on April 14, 2018 in Commentary Magazine, “The Christian Case for Invading Syria.” After all that carnage from which we continue to reap consequences, someone has the chutzpah to propose a “Christian” case to decimate yet another country in the Middle East, bringing about the complete liquidation of Christians in the region. The rise of American Christians against their Eastern brethren is grievous.

My friends, can you look me in the eye and tell me that it was a good thing to invade Iraq? Can you look me in the eye and say, “I’m sorry for the collateral damage done to Iraqi Christians, but what we did overall was a good thing? After all, we did depose a tyrant.”

You need not marvel that Donald Trump became president. The American people have judged and they have rejected these ideas. Is it not right then to ask afresh what conservatism means, what went wrong and how we can right it? Should we not be about the business of testing ideas and looking for ways to help our countrymen? The American people do not want billions of dollars squandered on wars. They want money spent on infrastructure, they want jobs, they want to be heard. My principle is to stand with them, to help them, to bring the light of Christ to them.

Conservatism per se does not change, on principle it does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. In order to learn the lessons of the Iraq War, we need to distinguish the baby from the bathwater—that is the struggle.

Luma Simms, a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies the life and thought of immigrants. Her essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in a variety of publications including National Affairs, Public Discourse, Law and Liberty, The Wall Street Journal, National Review, the Institute for Family Studies, and others. Her book The Statue of Libertine is forthcoming via Templeton Press.

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